De Kaasmarkt in Alkmaar, The Netherlands

Cheese gets loaded onto the pallets.

Cheese geting loaded onto the pallets.

When we arrived at the cheese market in the North Holland town of Alkmaar early Friday morning, my first instinct was to get right back in the car and leave. There were WAY too many people, or rather, tourists. Luckily, the pull of cheese samples and colorful photo opportunities was too strong, and we stayed anyways. I wormed my way under and around to get pretty close to the front of the crowd so I’d be able to take photos.

Cheese sellers and buyers take a sample of Gouda from a giant orange wheel of cheese.

Cheese sellers and buyers take a sample of Gouda to share with spectators.

Though this market is a major tourist attraction, it’s not just for show. Early each Friday morning from April to September, thousands of kilograms of Gouda and Edam are transported from the factories to the Waagplein in Alkmaar as has been done since the late 16th century. Kaaszetters (cheese setters) arrange the giant orange discs on mats where they will then be inspected for taste and appearance. At precisely 10 a.m. the bell rings and the market is open for business.

The traders inspect and taste the cheese by tapping on it and taking samples with a tool that looks a lot like a soil sampler. They share with the spectators and joke about prices with elderly Dutch ladies. The atmosphere is serious yet convivial. Once a trader decides he’s ready to buy, the bargaining begins. This is still conducted in the old way, by clapping hands as they name prices. The last clap signifies the final price.

The cheese is weighed, then transported by the colorful wooden pallets to the buyer’s truck. Each pallet is loaded with 8 cheeses weighing a total of about 108 kg (238 lbs.). Today’s cheese carriers still belong to cheese carrier’s guilds, but the position is honorary instead of a full-time job.

The very busy Friday morning cheese market in Alkmaar, The Netherlands.

Despite the crowds, I had a really good time and would recommend a visit to Alkmaar if you’re ever in the area. The cheese carriers work really hard, but the atmosphere is still festive, with the colorful pallets and hats, the bright orange cheese and lots of jovial banter. Once the market is finished, the square fills up with café tables where you can enjoy a beer or slice of appelgebak

For more information about the Alkmaar cheese market, visit kaasmarkt.nl.

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